Education bill speaks with forked tongue

Students still can be pushed into unneeded bilingual classes

With a sluggish economy turning out to be a scrappier adversary than the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Bush badly needed a victory on the home front. He chalked up an important one this week when House and Senate negotiators agreed on the details of his education bill. Mr. Bush could sign the legislation next week, presenting it to the nation as evidence of making good on his oft-repeated campaign promise to “leave no child behind.”

The president got much of what he asked for: more accountability in the form of yearly testing from the third through the eighth grade, more local control for states, and more funding for early reading programs.

But what the parents of students with limited English skills got was a bit more ambiguous. True, they were given more power over whether their kids are placed in bilingual classes, under what circumstances, and for how long. They also got a requirement that schools inform them why their children need bilingual education in the first place, and allow them to choose the method of instruction. And they got an assurance that, after all of that, if they decide to remove a child from bilingual classes, schools must comply immediately.

Schools got something, too. The bill gives more discretion to local officials to design bilingual programs by eliminating what had been a wrongheaded federal requirement that 75 percent of bilingual funding be funneled to programs that rely on native-language instruction.

Those changes are steps in the right direction, but they are baby steps at best. Even with those concessions, the parents of children in bilingual education – overwhelmingly Hispanic – remain pretty much what they have been since the advent of the program more than 30 years ago – the second-class citizens of the public school system.

In an ideal world – one where Democratic lawmakers are half as passionate about serving the interests of students and parents as they are about pleasing teacher unions, consultants, and the rest of the education establishment – Congress would have ensured that parents have the last word.

As it stands, school officials will continue to decide whether a student belongs in bilingual classes – a determination inevitably colored by the fact that the amount of federal bilingual education dollars a school receives is tied to the number of students it ropes into the program. If Hispanic parents disagree – and they often do – they can, at least in theory, “opt out” of those classes. Not surprisingly, school officials often fight them all of the way. Some parents eventually give up, while others grab picket signs and spill out into the streets.

The process should be reversed. Students should receive instruction in their native language only when parents “opt in” to those types of classes. Even then, the emphasis always should be on English acquisition, and students never should be on the bilingual track for more than three years.

A three-year limit is what Mr. Bush initially had in mind as part of his overall goal to make public schools more accountable. What came out of Congress was completely different – a mere insistence that, after three years in the program, students be tested in English. And even that requirement is watered down by allowing waivers for an additional two years.

The lengths to which the education bureaucracy, and its supporters in government, will go to avoid being held accountable for the performance of students in bilingual classes should dispel once and for all the misperception that bilingual classes represent something done for Hispanics when, in reality, they are something done to Hispanics.

Mr. Bush seems to understand that. Having never been a fan of eliminating bilingual education or requiring that students be placed in English-only classrooms, he nonetheless has been passionate about helping students to acquire English-language skills faster and more efficiently. Mr. Bush has said he sees a quality education for Hispanic and minority children as nothing short of a civil right. He is correct. The indiscriminate warehousing of Hispanic students in unaccountable bilingual programs for, in some cases, as long as nine years constitutes nothing less than a civil rights violation. Too bad Congress couldn’t see that.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

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